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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

BELL's Camino

(Jacaranda, Syringa, bouganvilla in Johannesburg Parks)

Just over two weeks ago I flew out of Santiago de Compestela .

I have come back to a Johannesburg in the height of late spring.  We had great rain the first weekend I was back, and the evenings and early mornings are still cool although the day time temperatures are up in the mid twenties.  As I walk the dogs I see the new leaves on the trees.  The smell of the syringa, jasmine and  Australian frangipani fills the air, and the sight of the brilliant bougainvillea and the madly flowering bauhinia add to the joy I feel as I walk through the suburbs.

I am happy to be back.  This city has a reputation for violence and crime.  What is rarely mentioned is the wonderful people who make up the majority of its inhabitants - people who greet you with a smile, who live their lives bravely and cheerfully.

It has been hectic catching up but today I feel  that I have got my equilibrium back!  I can look at the time away with some sort of clarity and sense of balance.

The Camino - am I glad I walked it (or half of it anyway!)? 
Yes, no doubt about it.  I had an amazing adventure, thanks in good part to my great companions, and our extraordinary guide Sylvia.  Her organisation made it possible to walk out every day with no care in the world other than to get to the next night's accommodation - what a tremendous sense of freedom that engendered.  Not having to worry about what day it was, or where we were going to or had come from was a gift beyond price.

Sylvia has a passion for the Camino, bringing with it a huge depth of knowledge of the trail and its history.  In a former life I think she must have been a mason who worked on one or more of the churches and cathedrals on the route!  She also has the ability to make everyone feel special, from her fellow pilgrims to the shopkeepers and taxi drivers who we met on the way.  These gifts smoothed the way for us, added a richness to the tapestry of northern Spain and made the trip unforgettable.

What did I like about the small piece of Spain we walked through?

The beauty of the countryside from the Pyrenees to Finisterre - a little village on the Atlantic coast which was considered the end of the world until Christopher Columbus sailed  to the Americas. We walked up and down mountains, through glorious forests, open meadows, vineyards,  vegetable gardens and grain fields.  And of course towns, villages and hamlets made up of just the farmer's house and his barn.

I haven't had time yet to go through my journal and my photos and put the two together but certain things stand out in my memory – beautiful Pamplona,  the glory of the colours in the stained glass windows in Leon cathedral and of course the very special cathedral in Santiago (the Holy Grail for pilgrims!)

We met great people, from Caroline our pretty and efficient transport person in St Jean to the taxi driver who took us to the airport in Santiago - and in between a myriad of Jose and Jose Luis's!  Kind people, who went out of their way to help us, thanks to a large extent to Sylvia's magic.

The people of northern Spain (many of whom are Basque) have a great sense of pride and the towns and villages are spotless (sadly the only litter is left by passing pilgrims).  They plant flowers everywhere, in window boxes and in all their parks and open spaces - the colour was spectacular.  The young girls are beautiful with dark hair and eyes, slim with long legs.  We met lots of hard working people,  looking after the pilgrims and working on their farms.

The sound of bells - cow bells and church bells - which will always be the sound of the Camino to me.

A great public transport which worked like a dream, always on time.

Clean rooms, good beds and hot showers at the end of a day.

What did I find difficult about being in such a different world?

We wake early here at home, work through the day and generally get to bed fairly early.  The Spanish have a very different way of living - they start work much later, close their businesses during siesta which start any time from 12.30 to  and open again anytime from 4.30 to 6 (or not at all in some cases!) Dinner rarely starts before 8 and the children are still playing outside at 10.30.  It must be really hot in the middle of the day in summertime,  and air-conditioning seems to be a luxury, so I understand the concept of siesta but I felt that so many opportunities were wasted.  We often left a town before anything was open and often reached our destination during siesta time to find everything closed or closing!
Vegetarians are unusual in Spain but I expected that;  we had a couple of exceptional meals, and on two or three occasions were able to cook for ourselves.  It seemed to me that the pilgrim menu was generally fairly unexciting but it was also very good value being three courses with bread and wine supplied at no extra cost.

Many dogs in the countryside were chained up on short chains.  Horses too in one place.  I think that the problem is that many of the dwellings are not fenced in so the animals would wander,  but it was hard to see.

The churches were generally very ornately decorated, many with gold from the New World, and I felt they were wonderful monuments to the craftsmen who built them, but they didn't feel very sacred.  If anything many of them were more like museums.  The Marian tradition is very strong in that part of Spain so the Madonna was prominent and it was hard to find Jesus (usually tucked away in a side chapel!).  I have always loved old churches but by the time the Camino was over I was all churched out!

Many pilgrims  walk part of the Camino over a number of years, others do it in one go and at a fast pace (30 odd km a day or more!).   Is it a spiritual journey?  I think in part, but it's also a great walk with friends and their faces as they come into the plaza at Santiago say it all.

Would I walk the Camino again? Right now the answer would be no - I loved the walk but there are other places to explore.  But I am glad I did it; for many reasons.